Today’s birthday boy is none other than Ian Hunter, the lead singer and primary songwriter for the rockabilly glam-band Mott the Hoople, whose heyday, in the 1972-74 period, coincided with those awkward adolescent days for me. And their primary hit, “All the Young Dudes,” written by David Bowie, was sort of a grand anthem for adolescence. It was also a song that flirted, in various ways, with same-sex erotics and gender bending in general. Which soon became a kind of badge of honor for Mott.
Ian Hunter, who is actually older than any of the main artists of the Sixties generation—The Beatles, the main Stones, Dylan, Lou Reed, etc.—managed to present a very savvy grasp of what his juniors had to offer. With his ever-present shades and pouty scowl, he had the aura of Blonde on Blonde era Dylan, and his coiffure could rival Marc “ain’t no square with my corkscrew hair” Bolan; add to that a scrappy sense of rock that picked up riffs from VU (Mott’s cover of “Sweet Jane” is as good as you would hope), Bowie, a poorman’s Stones, and a nasal vocal style that sounded like a cocktail of equal parts John Lennon, Ray Davies, Dylan, and Lou and you have a pretty potent mix.
And all this was happening under the umbrella of glam, a certain way of offering one’s soul for rock’n’roll. What all the young dudes knew at the time was that such music presented means of acting out that had more balls and swish than any old Broadway musical could offer. It was all about rocking out as only effeminate boys could, capitalizing on the fact that rock boys tended to appeal to all comers anyway.
Today’s song is from the 1973 album Mott, which is the band’s best. It’s more or less better than the Stones LP of that year and, though it doesn’t have the grunge of the New York Dolls debut (also that year) or sheer visionary moxie of Bowie’s Aladdin Sane, it’s a high-water mark of glam rock (even the Stones were flirting with glam that year).
The song, unlike the more adolescent aspects of the band's music, registers the outlook of someone old enough to know better. Since Hunter was 34 at the time, no wonder. It’s a song that rather wryly registers the kind of crush that one much older can have on those much younger. Students, for teachers; fans, for aging rockers. Hell, even the coming-of-age kids of one’s friends. It’s the kind of song that looks at such things because Hunter was a rocker more willing than most to consider his youngster fan base from that point of view. Several Mott songs comment on Hunter’s vexed relation with the whole notion of singing to kids, and the irony of being someone they might expect to be “like them.” With comments about hating your clothes, and “I tell you not to see me / And I tell you not to feel me / And I make your life a drag / It’s such a pity” we get a sense of an older lover placed in a kind of in loco parentis position with his still evolving object of desire.
I wish I was your mother / I wish I’d been your father / Then I would have seen you / Could have been you / As a child / Played houses with your sisters / And wrestled all your brothers / And then, who knows, I might have felt a family / For a while.
The idea isn’t so much that the singer wants to be the progenitor of his addressee, but rather that he wishes he could have seen her as a child, have “raised” her, so to speak. Which then passes into the idea, as I receive it, that he could have grown up with her, playing with her sisters and wrestling her brothers as one would do with one’s own siblings. And, since he’s said he would have been her if he could, it’s another way of saying he would like to be a part of her childhood.
I find this touching, poignant, bittersweet—throw what adjective you like at it. That sense one has, when seeing the young as romantic beings, that they have yet to discover something you’d like to show them. But the fact that you’ve already discovered it makes you suspect as a dispenser of such experience, somehow. Hunter’s song, with its drawling, dylanesque vocal, treats all this with a kind of fatalism: “Even if we make it / I’ll be too far out to take it”—perhaps alluding to the fact that he’ll be past it about the time the addressee even starts to fall for “what might be.”
It’s a song from a grown man, who might naturally be rather avuncular, placed in the position of being a sexual reference point. Not a predator, mind you, but rather a kind of “cherry poppin’ daddy,” to borrow a phrase. It’s to Hunter’s credit that he writes it from the point of view of the unease the situation inspires, even the heartache if you’re willing to credit it, rather than the leering, lip-smacking temptation of something like the Stones’ “Stray Cat Blues” (a great song though).
Is there a happy ending? I don’t think so.